March 10 to 14, 2007
The French presidential elections, held over 2 rounds, were to be held in April and May, and this colored all the discussions during this trip.
Part of the fellowship experience was the opportunity to have individual meetings with organizations specific to our profession or field of interest or expertise. However, the majority of the meetings were attended by all 16 American fellows, as well as Amaya Bloch-Laine, Director, GMF Paris office and Daniela Manca, Program Officer, Trans-Atlantic Center, GMF, based in Brussels. The en masse meetings were generally held at the Maison de l’Amerique Latin.
The substance of the meetings will be addressed in separate posts.
Saturday, March 10
Daytime -- We arrived in Brussels, Belgium. Ms. Daniela Manca met us at the airport and accompanied us by train to Paris, the first leg of our European trip. She acted as our city coordinator for the duration of the Paris trip. It must truly have been like herding cats. (It reminded me of the Leadership Trainings RWN held in Boston and Sioux Falls in 2004. We had dinners in different places each of the 4 nights. The RWN staff and I had to make sure that all 20 refugee and immigrant women got to dinner and got back to the hotel.) However, she was very strict and no nonsense, pushing back when any of us complained. She treated us like adults.
When we arrived at the Paris train station, we were confronted with our first challenge – finding and using an ATM machine to get cab fare. As we stood in line for the ATM and then for the taxis, we were approached by a few women with long skirts, long wavy black hair, and headscarves, but not Muslim headscarves. They held cards that apparently stated in English that they were Bosnian refugees and could we spare some change? They did not look like any of the Bosnian refugees I have ever met. We speculated that they were gypsies/Roma but could not tell for sure.
We loaded into taxis, with all our luggage, and off to the hotel we went. Our route took us through the Louvre’s courtyard (it is massive), which I recognized only by the glass pyramid designed by I. M. Pei.
After checking in, we all gathered for lunch at a nearby Moroccan restaurant where I had a delicious lamb tagine. I sat across from Kwanzaa Hall, city of Atlanta council member, and we spent our first meal in Paris talking about Atlanta. Even though we both live in the Atlanta area, we had never met. He represents a district in downtown Atlanta which does not have any refugees living there.
We mainly discussed urban development, which generally is not seen as a refugee issue or a women's issue. However, urban redevelopment / gentrification affects housing prices in one area, with ripple effects throughout the metropolitan area. Refugees are certainly impacted by forces in the larger housing market.
For the first eight months of arrival in the US, refugees are given less than $500 per month for all living expenses. That includes housing, furnishings, clothing, transportation, etc. Therefore refugees live in very low rent apartments, in just those areas that get gentrified. The low rent apartment complexes get torn down to build upscale housing, so they are pushed out. And to where? To where ever else they can find affordable housing, on a transportation line. Therefore urban development issues are very much refugee issues as well.
This is also a women's issue. A recent survey of women's issues in Atlanta found that there is no match between where there is the greatest need for child care, where the child care centers are, and where the jobs are. So a working woman has to leave her home and travel some distance to drop her children off at a child care center, and then travel some more to get to work. If she is driving, she has some control over how she accomplishes all this. If she does not have a car and has to rely on public transportation, it can be a three hour ordeal twice a day. This is a stark example of how urban development is a women's issue.
Yet where is the gender lens or refugee/immigrant lens in the all the discussion about the built environment?
6pm – Program Briefing
Rest of the evening was free. We went to dinner en masse. Several fellows had prepared by studying travel restaurant guides.
Sunday, March 11
As it was Sunday, we had no meetings scheduled. We did have the option of a side trip to Versailles. One piece of advice I received from prior MMF fellows, was to say yes to the optional events, to say yes to new experiences. So I went to Versailles with 3 other fellows.
9:30am -- meet in hotel lobby, take commuter train to Versailles. It was an elevated train that followed the Seine River.
In the middle of the river, on a little island, was the Statue of Liberty. I was absolutely surprised by it, and tears came to my eyes. Seeing this very American symbol, a gift from the French, made me very emotional. Just months before, I had finally seen the Statue of Liberty in New York City and was surprised by the tears it evoked. This visceral reaction made me realize that yes, I am American, and I do love the US, even when it didn’t always love me back.
So to see it again in Paris brought those feelings back. It also made me sad and angry that now the US is no longer welcoming people from other places, refuting the poem by Emma Lazarus. And on reflection, it’s sad that centuries ago France and the US were very good friends and allies and now many Americans have only contempt for France, deeming it weak. Makes me worry, pride goes before the fall, and all that.
10:15am – La Matinale des Ecuyers, equestrian show. Which we missed, so we toured the Chateau de Versailles. It is utterly enormous, opulent, and gold. After a few hours, we returned to Paris.
After a quick nap, I took a walk around the neighborhood to find lunch and came across a Chinese restaurant. I had to stop it and see what Chinese-French food was like. The food looked like what one would find in an American Chinese restaurant buffet, but in deli cases. I had the duck and broccoli and white rice, all pretty good.
It was a small business, run by what seemed a mother and teenage daughter. How wonderful to be able to support an immigrant entrepreneur! Neither spoke English and I don’t speak French. However, we did both speak Mandarin Chinese and so I was able to order. I could have pointed as well, though, if we didn’t speak any of the same languages.
I was the only customer sitting at the formica tables. The proprietor sat at a table in the corner counting the days earnings. Two French men came in and sat at a table near her and the cash. She yelled at them, and one of the men yelled back. Lots of loud French. The men moved. Then the one man got up and walked behind the counter to get something. She yelled at him again and he yelled back at her. However, he smiled at me and said “Nee how” which means “How are you” in Mandarin.
Soon after, a Chinese woman and European man walked in and sat with the proprietor at the corner table. She proceeded to tell them, in Mandarin Chinese, about how rude the man was to sit so close to her and the money and then to walk behind the counter. Such utterly inappropriate behavior! Can you believe it?
If her Chinese speaking friends did not come in, I would not have fully understood what was going on. Now I understood how refugees feel when they are resettled in a place where they don’t speak the language.
7pm – Welcome Dinner: The French Presidential Elections
Speakers: Harold Hyman, Journalist, BFM-TV, and Pascal Riche, former Liberation correspondent in DC and MMF 1992. No notes as I forgot to take my note book to dinner. However, I do remember that most of the conversation regarded the upcoming presidential elections. The front runners were Segolene Royal, a Socialist who would be France’s first female president; Nicolas Sarkozy, a conservative who has a grandparent who was Hungarian, that is not-French; and Bayroux, the centrist.
Monday, March 12
8:30am to 9:45am – individual appointments for some of the fellows.
10:30am to 12pm – A French Perspective on the European Union. Jean-Michel Demetz, journalist, L’Express, and Jacques Rupnik, Research Director at the Center for International Studies and Research.
In preparation for this trip, I read "The United States of Europe" by T. R. Reid. While not comprehensive, I did feel that I understood basically what the EU was about and how it came about. In this meeting, I learned that the European Union was developed by the French as a balancing power of the United States. While the EU is not exactly like the US, citizens of EU member countries can move freely from one country to another. Now, most young French view the UK as the land opportunity and move to London in great numbers. People joke that London is France's 7th largest town.
The biggest concern France has with the EU is enlargement because the more members there are, the power of each member is diluted. And the big question (no pun intended) is Turkey. This is a theme that we would hear through out the trip, as well as an undercurrent of Islamophobia. The concerns are: Turkey has 100 million people. It is by far the largest and poorest country. It is culturally and religiously different from the rest of Europe. It is the gateway to the Middle East.
Militarily, France and the UK are the largest supportors and funders for NATO. The EU mostly goes along with the US and is happy to let the US pay for it. However, now there is great disagreement with the US regarding the Iraq war, so things may change. After the Cold War, there was a missed opportunity to rethink the role of NATO. But there was the idea of a European pillar in NATO and to reintegrate France into the Central Command. However that was mishandled by numerous sides.
The speakers also noted that France was the first country to be bombed by Islamic terrorists. However, their response has been to work with Algeria and other gov’ts to get the intelligence about what’s happening in Algeria and in the Parisian suburbs. France engaged and used human intelligence and not military might, the subtext being that the US used only military might and see where that got us?
12pm to 2pm – Immigration and Access to Education in France, Patrick Weil, Center for the Study of Immigration, Integration, and Citizenship Policies, and Ghislaine Hudson, principal, Dammerie-les-lys high school.
3pm to 4:30pm – Meeting the Next Generation at Lycee Helene Boucher high school.
We made a site visit to the Helene Boucher high school, which used to be a girls only school and I think is now a magnet school. If set in the US, it would certainly be recognized as a school. but in the US, we probably would not have a bilingual (English/French) display about women and science, and definitely would not have a plaque on the wall commemorating the students who were killed in the concentration camps in WWII, as Helene Boucher high school did.
We met in the library with about 4o English speaking high school students. We broke up into groups of 3 to 8 people for conversation. I met 2 girls both of whom spoke great English who did not see their future in France. The educational and career system was too strict and regimented and so they plan to going to college in France, but seeking careers abroad, for example in London, echoing what we learned earlier in the day.
I was so impressed by these students, both of whom were multilingual in French, English, Latin, and some German. One girl also learned Mandarin Chinese, seeing that China is ascendant. I reminded myself that these students were volunteers and we would not be meeting with them if there was not already some congruence in interest in globalization and language compatibility.
Before coming on this trip, we were told to prepare token gifts for each of our meetings and encounters. For this meeting, on behalf of all the American fellows, I presented a copy of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, printed on parchment paper, suitable for framing and displaying in a school.
Individual appointments for the rest of the day for some fellows.
8:30pm to ? -- Dinner with Jerome Guedj, Vice President in charge of Social Affairs at the Conseil general de l’Essonne, the legislative body of the district of Essonne.
It was wonderfully multicultural in many ways: Two white Americans, but one from rural South Dakota and one from the heart of New York City, a Somali refugee to Minnesota, and a Chinese American from Georgia, having dinner in Paris, at an Italian restaurant, with a European MMF fellow who traveled through out the US, and now represents a multicultural district of Paris.
In France, the suburbs are the low income areas, with people housed in high rise apartment complexes. Many refugees and immigrants live in those suburbs. Many young people in France have difficulty finding employment and refugee and immigrant youth face additional discrimination. Several years ago, many young refugees and immigrants rioted and burned cars and building in protest. Essonne was one of those suburbs and it was interesting to hear Mr. Guedj mention that these were not random youths rioting (which connotes randomness and aimlessness), but angry, frustrated, and thwarted people trying attract attention and create change.
Tuesday, March 13
9am – take the Metro to the National Assembly
10 to 11:30am – Tour of the French National Assembly and Meeting with Laurent Wauquiez, Member of Parliament, leading figure of the Conservative Caucus, head of Franco-American friendship group. Mr. Wauqueiz was unavailable to meet, so we had a little free time. Several of the American fellows were attorneys and took this time to check their Blackberrys to see if any more US Attorneys had been fired by US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
12 to 2pm – French and American Relations with regard to Foreign Policy and Security, Frederic Bozo, Professor, Universite de Paris V.
The relationship between France and the US is cyclical with its ups and downs, but on the whole it is solid.
In the short term, there is a reconciliation between the 2 as domestic policy has become more of a priority in France. The good relations will probably continue, as the three major French presidential candidates want to have good relations with the US.
The medium term outlook is not so good due to serious disagreements over the role of NATO, goals in the Middle East, and domestic politics. Regarding the Middle East: The US used Lebanon as leverage against Syria; France is interested in keeping Lebanon secure. France wants to preserve the nonproliferation regime in Iran; the US wants regime change. Also, Iraq has been a close French ally because Saddam Hussein supported a secular pan-Arab coalition and in the 1970s France worked to stabilize the region. We all know that the US invaded Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein.
Domestically, France has the same attitude towards the US as other European countries do. There is no contender who supports closer ties to the US and in the US, people feel free to insult France. There is no French minority in the US to advocate for closer US -French relations.
The Cold War drew the US and France close. Now, with globalization, it is much more a US-Europe relationship and it would be more pragmatic to use the EU as a buffer between the US and France.
2:30 to 4pm – France in a Globalized World, Nicolas Veron, Bruegel Institute and Paul Atkinson, Groupe d’Economie Mondiale
France is experiencing huge demographic changes. There is an increase in the elderly population and a decrease in the number of younger workers. There is also increasing migration from Eastern Europe to Western Europe. This results in increasing fiscal pressures especially regarding health and medical care and the pressures of taxes and spending. The solution is to increase resources, mobilize people to increase productivity and need to make the business environment more welcoming.
This contrasted with another economist speaker who was very proud that the French private sector was very strong. It made me think of an old "Bloom County" comic strip showing two economists arguing, as the ultimate nightmare.
The largest French businesses are now privatized and competing throughout the EU. Human resource directors feel this most strongly because they deal with employees and brand identity.
Many people are moving to London because it's easier to start businesses, has fewer regulations, adn more business-friendly labor laws. In France, however, top management and entrepreneurs are unwilling to step down so there is a lack of succession.
This resonated with me because founders of nonprofits are entrepreneurs. They see a need/niche in the market, develop a service or product, get funders and customers, and the organization / business is built from the passion of the founder / entrepreneur and much of the decision making and record keeping occurs in the mind of that one person. Additionally, many NGOs do not offer retirement plans, so if the founder does step aside for new leadership, what income will she/he have for living on?
In France, the 35 hour work week is not uniformly popular, but it is effective as workers are more productive. The bigger issue is access to markets. Small businesses have little access to financing because there is little competition among banks for the business of small businesses.
Rather ironic, as the word "entrepreneur" is French, and entrepreneurship is a staple of the American psyche (fits well with individualism). Little known fact -- in the US the largest government funder of small businesses is the Small Business Association (fittingly). The second largest is the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), to help refugees start their own businesses. ORR is a major supporter of Refugee Women's Network, including our microenteprise program for refugee women.
5pm – individual meeting at GISTI (Groupe d’information et de soutien des immigres), an immigrant rights nonprofit organization. To be another post.
6:30pm – group debriefing and end of Paris segment of the trip. Tomorrow our group of 16 American fellows divide into three groups of 5 or 6, going to different north European cities: Copenhagen, Denmark; Hamburg, Germany; or Lubeck, Germany. Tomorrow, I will be going to Copenhagen.